The Seattle Times recently published a shocking series of articles exposing the fact that Northwest School of Innovative Learning (SOIL) schools are not designed to improve a student’s educational outcomes, but, instead, are designed to warehouse students with behavioral and developmental disabilities.
Over the past several years, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has received many complaints about Northwest SOIL schools from districts and parents alike. These complaints have alleged physical and mental abuse, lack of curriculum, short staffing, untrained and unqualified staff, inadequate reporting of incidents, health and safety concerns, failure to implement students’ educational plans, and more.
But time and time again, OSPI deflected these concerns back to school districts, ignoring its own general supervisory monitoring responsibilities provided by federal and state law. By doing so, instead of holding Northwest SOIL as well as districts accountable for placements at Northwest SOIL, OSPI has failed this state’s most vulnerable students.
Make no mistake: The law is clear that OSPI and school districts bear responsibility for assuring that each child with a disability who is placed in a private school by a school district is provided special education services that meet OSPI’s educational standards. Federal law and state laws and regulations concerning these obligations are clear. The articles produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Seattle Times demonstrate that the “services” provided at Northwest SOIL schools do not meet these standards.
What should happen? OSPI should immediately close Northwest SOIL schools to new admissions. Next, the state agency should order corrective actions and provide on-site technical assistance and certificated teachers with special education endorsements, fully licensed therapists, and enough paraeducators to supervise and support the students every single day until a longer-term plan can be enacted. Additionally, extra support should be provided to counter the effects of the traumatic environment at the schools.
Next, OSPI should facilitate meetings to allow districts, students and parents to successfully transition away from Northwest SOIL schools — either back to the original school district with appropriate levels of support or to a different private school that can meet the student’s needs.
Once all students’ educational and placement needs are met, OSPI should revoke its approval of Northwest SOIL schools as the law provides. OSPI should not approve of any Northwest SOIL school reopening unless it can demonstrate that it has enough currently certificated teachers with special education endorsements, licensed therapy providers and infrastructure to meet the unique needs of the students it purports to serve. If any Northwest SOIL school should reopen, it must be subjected to frequent on-site visits, parent and student questionnaires, and technical assistance, with corrective actions ordered when violations are found.
Each student who attends school at Northwest SOIL is a human with strengths, gifts and potential. The fact that students are segregated in subpar schools far away from their local schools and communities is a flaw in how public education is funded, supported and structured. These articles highlight the need for us as a community, as government, as the public to reconsider the concept of inclusion and build public schools communities designed to welcome all students. It is possible. Segregation away from a student’s community is not the only option.